King speech shook America 40 years ago

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It was a violent time with violent prospects.

But instead of rage and fury, he gave America a dream.

Forty years ago today in Washington, 17,000 combat-ready troops prepared for what only seemed inevitable. Stores closed and chain-locked their doors; Washington's Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle told his nuns to stay inside for fear of rioting in the streets.

More than 250,000 people gathered for the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." The nation braced for a backlash.

The country was in the midst of a racial nightmare: In the summer of 1963, many states still operated segregated school districts; less than 10 percent of African-Americans in the South's 100 largest counties were registered to vote; in many places, blacks could not even serve on juries.

That spring, in Birmingham, Ala., police commissioner Bull Connor turned his dogs on peaceful demonstrators.

On May 28, the Jackson, Miss., home of Medgar Evers, state field secretary for the NAACP, was firebombed. Two weeks later, he was assassinated in front of his home.

In Danville, Va., civil rights workers faced fire hoses; in Americus, Ga., police beat peaceful protestors; in Winona, Miss., police arrested Fannie Lou Hamer because she attended a voter registration workshop - they took her to jail, beat her and plotted to drown her in a river.

Late on the afternoon of Aug. 28, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the son of a Baptist preacher, braced himself at the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and, for a moment, paused and glanced heavenward.

"I have a dream," he cried. "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

Today his speech - often repeated, memorialized, recently enshrined in granite on the steps from which he spoke - is considered one of the nation's sacred texts, a primary document of the American faith.

The words, which no doubt will be repeated countless times today in schools and government halls, on radio and television nationwide, have gradually taken a place alongside the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural and John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural as a rightful part of the American canon.

"It certainly fits in that pantheon of great civic addresses," said Richard Lischer, Duke University professor and author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Word that Moved America. "But it also performed the function of a sermon on a national scale - in fact, on an unparalleled scale in American history."

With its biblical allusions and resonances, delivered by a man with a powerful, preacherly countenance, imbued with dramatic inflections and carried by a roiling baritone voice, the speech, Lischer said, "served to call America to a higher view of itself and, implicitly, back to a deeper understanding of God and its own history."

That a religious speech could so profoundly touch a secular nation may seem peculiar today. That at the time of King's death, in April 1968, the speech had all but vanished from national memory and was rarely referenced by people in the civil rights movement may seem unimaginable. That it spawned debate, controversy and reinterpretation from the day the words were uttered makes it all the more mystifying.

But like the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and other foundational documents of the American creed, the speech, widely known for its "Dream" refrain, is now recognized as a kind of living entity.

"That's why I refer to it as a 'sacred' text," said Drew Hansen, author of the recently published book The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation. "People use the words of these primary documents the way they would an authoritative religious text: It expresses the beliefs of their community of faith and provides guidance for how to live and inspiration for how to move forward to the future. It also happens to be why people sometimes argue over it and interpret it in different ways, just like they do with, say, the Bible or the Constitution."

It is a speech with a past, a story and a national audience that, especially on this day, often stops to ponder the magic of a few well-chosen words.

The words "I have a dream" never appeared in the written version King intended to deliver that day. The piece he carefully crafted over four days before Aug. 28 highlighted a theme he referred to as the "bad check." He had hoped that by reflecting on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, he could demonstrate how the country failed its "sacred obligation" to black Americans for 100 years - a "bad check; a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' " Echoing Lincoln ("Five score years ago ... " the speech began), King wanted to stress two themes: the economic plight of blacks, the demand for civil rights legislation.

There was no mention of a dream.

At 10 a.m., Joan Baez was singing a spiritual over the public address system on the National Mall. Also in attendance: baseball player Jackie Robinson, singer Bobby Darin, future historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and future Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele. In Ghana, one of the most influential African-Americans of the century, W.E.B. DuBois, had died in exile the day before, and an announcement of the news brought an uncertain, almost tepid response from the crowd.

The speeches were nearly inaudible from a third of the way back. Some people, weary from long bus rides, napped under trees or returned to the buses. John Lewis, the 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made what is still considered the most provocative speech of the day, even though he decided to leave out the most incendiary part: predicting civil rights workers would undertake a new kind of Sherman's Ride through the South and "burn Jim Crow to the ground."

While there was no hint of the violence city officials feared and some predicted (Life magazine reported the "worst case of invasion jitters since the first Battle of Bull Run"), the spirit of the crowd started to wane, Hansen observed, until Mahalia Jackson stood up and sang the spiritual, "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned." By the time she reached the third verse, the crowd was calling back. Then she returned to the first verse and lifted her voice again. Then another song, an upbeat spiritual, exciting the crowd's passions again.

All three national television networks were covering the event. As president, Bill Clinton recalled watching the speech on TV at home in Arkansas. National political commentator Clarence Page, then a high school student in Ohio, also later remembered watching, rapt by what started to unfold.

Although he was last on the roster of speakers, historians have observed, King wanted to keep his comments to five minutes. As he was wont to do, he made spontaneous additions to the text while waiting his turn, but when he was introduced, he intended to stay the course. He followed the text almost exclusively until the final paragraphs.

What happened next remains a mystery. According to Hansen, some people said Mahalia Jackson started to shout, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" Others say he responded to the crowd's excitement and fell back on a "set piece" from speeches he had given in Detroit and Rocky Mount, N.C., where he had talked about "a dream." ("And so, my friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight," he had told a crowd the previous November.)

King, himself, later explained to his dissertation adviser from Boston University the "dream" actually first existed in the mind of God; King only delivered the message.

In any case, he suddenly quit reading, skipped over the final paragraph from his text. He glanced skyward and then, for the next seven minutes, made a profound departure. His extemporaneous remarks, even today, seem to transcend time.

"Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina ... knowing this situation can, and will, be changed," he said, the rich baritone rising and falling, trembling, almost singing. "I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."

He was off to the mountaintop.

The next day, many newspapers, including The Washington Post, did not mention the words "I have a dream." Norman Mailer, reporting for Esquire, wrote that the speeches were "anti-climactic." Malcolm X, who had been skeptical of the march, quipped that "this dream of King's is going to be a nightmare before it's over."

For others, who had followed King over many previous months giving speech after speech, the oration sounded like a pastiche of the "set pieces" he often relied on, according to Hansen. Others complained King missed his chance to make specific demands to the nation's legislators.

A sermon, a benign dream, some said.

And yet, over the next two years, King scored his most significant political victories: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Particularly in the Bible Belt, where even wary white conservatives would have understood his references to scriptural authority, King's speech could not be ignored. According to Duke's Lischer, the movement's "Bible-toting opponents" were alarmed and, to a certain extent, disarmed, "because of the utter certainty with which [the speech] included them in something larger and more gracious than their own agenda." That is, imagining not merely a new America, but the kingdom of God.

After success, though, the speech disappeared from memory. Historians point out that between 1965 and 1968, King shifted emphasis. He became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. He increasingly addressed issues of poverty and economic injustice, the need to guarantee an annual income and create a platform for what later came to be known as affirmative action.

In the last years of his life, Lischer said, King actually began denouncing the nation he once dreamed of as reconciled. The topic of his final sermon, which he never lived to preach, Lischer has written, was "Why America May Go To Hell."

Over the years, many have pointed out that King advocated a more radical agenda than the legacy the "Dream" speech suggests.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, on the 25th anniversary of the speech, observed that "for 25 years, I've had this urge to say that the speech was not about a dream. ... The heart of the speech was about economic justice, a fair distribution of resources." Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, has said that after King died, his image was frozen in time that day in 1963, casting him as a dreamer but not a man who challenged economic exploitation and injustice.

Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project at Stanford University, has said that, at one point, Martin Luther King Jr. became "a sound bite of four words [I have a dream]," in order to sway skeptical Americans to the idea of a national King holiday.

Whatever the case, the speech has had a life of its own even beyond politics: a commercial life and a strangely neo-conservative one.

In a few publicized cases, King's heirs have asserted copyright protections to the speech. For instance, they filed a lawsuit against USA Today when the newspaper reprinted the speech to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. The King estate also sued CBS News in 1996 when the network started to sell a video with its own news footage of the speech. Both cases were settled out of court. Historians have sometimes complained of being instructed by the agency that handles the estate that if they intend to quote from the speech in their work, it will cost them.

The family also has occasionally approved use of the speech for marketing. One widely criticized advertisement for Alcatel Americas, a company that builds voice and data communications, showed King delivering the speech to an empty Mall with a voiceover saying, "Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect ... "

Then there was the Cingular ad in which King, through more techno-wizardry, appeared with Kermit the Frog, a Muppet, singing "dreamers like me."

Equally unnerving, Hansen points out, by the 1990s there was a new interpretation of the speech that emphasized not the "dream" but a portion where King discussed the importance of character over color - where he "dreams" that his own children "will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

In various states, anti-affirmative action groups began to use the speech to argue in favor of banning affirmative action. In 1996, California TV stations broadcast ads that featured that portion of King's speech on behalf of affirmative action opponents. ("Martin Luther King was right," they would say. "Let's get rid of discrimination.")

Frustration over uses and misuses of the speech grew so discouraging, Hansen pointed out, that by 2000, King scholar Michael Eric Dyson proposed a 10-year moratorium on viewing or listening to the speech, hoping time would let the nation recover its full meaning.

For many people who revere the speech, for scholars like Lischer and Hansen who study it, there is no question that the "dream" sequence was more than some "Freudian disclosure of personal meaning," as Lischer recently wrote. It was instruction from a prophet in the midst of revelation - a civic sermon promising redemption for a people lost to the sins of racism.

"G.K. Chesterton called America the nation with a soul of a church," Lischer said. "And I think the soul of America is still imbued with religious belief and religious expression. We may try to legislate against it or deny it, but that's really who we are, and King understood it. He had the mind of a liberal but the heart of an evangelical Christian. He knew how to put that together in way nobody had before."

So, in today's seemingly more secular America, can the speech still be heard to the same profound effect?

"It's a good question," Hansen said. "Even today there's still debate over how the speech is used, how it's to be interpreted and what King's legacy has been. But there's no question that the speech expresses what America stands for. That's been its real power."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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